Frequency flyer: Ham radio community, technology drives student’s passion

Jeremy Breef-Pilz, E’17, has been part of the ham radio community since high school. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

Jeremy Breef-Pilz might be better known to some as KB1REQ.

That’s because the fifth-year electrical and computer engineering major is an experienced ham radio operator, having received his first ham radio license at the ripe old age of 14.

His call sign—KB1REQ, assigned to him at that initial licensing—is what he uses to reach out to people across the world, on all seven continents.

At Northeastern, he’s a member of the Wireless Club—the university’s call sign is W1KBN—and a co-op veteran, having completed three experiential learning opportunities: two at telecommunications giant Motorola, and one at CPI Communications.

“It’s always been something that’s interested me,” said Breef-Pilz, E’17. “It’s a good motivating factor, and that’s what I tell everyone: Engineering isn’t easy, so you have to have a motivating factor to do it. So, this is the thing that will get me to learn multivariable calculus and care about it, because I think it does something cool, and I think you can do something with it.”

Breef-Pilz’s fascination with radios dates back to his childhood, when he would listen to the emergency scanner in his house. “I thought that was kind of cool, but I thought the technology behind it was even cooler,” he said.

Curious to learn more about that technology, he began watching videos, reading online forums, and checking out books from the library. Soon, he had immersed himself in a world limited only by his own ingenuity.

Two of Jeremy Breef-Pilz’s radios. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern

“When I started, I thought it was neat that I could build my own antennae,” Breef-Pilz said. “That’s where my interest in engineering came from—you can make something that does a better job for you.”

After getting his amateur radio operating license in 2008, Breef-Pilz went on to study for and receive the final two licenses, giving him access to the whole spectrum of ham radio frequencies.

Ham radio, the general term used to describe the amateur radio network, is different from broadcast radio in that it’s not commercial and only functions person-to-person. In other words, ham radio operators can’t broadcast their messages to a wide audience, only to the person with whom they connect over the airwaves.

“We’re all technical people who don’t get scared about opening something up and trying to make it work better,” Breef-Pilz said of the ham radio network collective.

When he discusses the ham radio community, he uses the terms “we” and “us,” a nod to this close-knit community. And perhaps this is why: It relies on people talking to other people.

Ham radio operators can be found at most major sporting events, volunteering as another layer of communication. Breef-Pilz himself has volunteered numerous times at the Head of the Charles Regatta and the Boston Marathon.

In fact, Breef-Pilz said it was a relay team of ham radio operators who helped stem the flow of runners headed toward the Boston Marathon’s finish line immediately after the bombings at the 2013 race. With cellular networks jammed up, ham radio operators hopped onto common frequencies to get information across all 26.2 miles of the course and stop a group of runners headed straight for danger.

Breef-Pilz wasn’t on the course in 2013, but rather volunteering at a first-aid trailer in Copley Square.

“Ham radio operators realized there were still thousands of people running right toward where the bombs went off,” he said of his volunteer counterparts. “They set up a coordinated effort to stop the race—they were able to pick up the slack when first responders obviously were needed elsewhere. Plus, they needed a distinct network to do it, and ham radio has the ability to adapt for that.”

It’s this aspect of radio—and the feats of engineering that go with it—that most appeal to Breef-Pilz, who will be looking to translate his skills into a job in the public safety sector after graduation.

“There’s an emphasis on quality, reliability, and robustness in that market that’s harder to find in other places,” he said. “It’s an area where all this does something positive, and I’d be engineering something that’s useful to people.”